I'm a visual artist and writer in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

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Recent Posts (page 2 of 15)

Moss and misunderstanding

I have not been unhappy for ten thousand years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.

—Leonard Cohen, from I Have Not Lingered In European Monasteries

A House By The Water

Some days I stare at a screen and some days I stare at the sea. I’m spending most afternoons programming A House By The Water, a digital projection of houses falling into the ocean, as part of an artist residency at The Rooms. I’m programming in Processing, which is pretty old-fashioned as far as computer graphics go – no fancy lighting engines or physics libraries. The computer talks in rectangles. I’ve written a program that draws houses out of boxes. Each box has a roof, which is eight rectangles and two triangles and a texture. Each box has a chimney. Some of the boxes have windows and doors. The boxes don’t know each other exist, so each house is full of vestigial chimneys that don’t reach the roof, and falling houses pass through each other like ghosts. I spend an entire evening failing to calculate shadows.

The computer talks in rectangles, but it breathes in loops. Loops are its essence. A rectangle is a loop if you untangle it enough (one, two, three, four sides). I write loops for stacking boxes into houses, loops for the choppy vector mesh that simulates the water’s surface, loops for the effect of gravity on a falling house, loops to control the translucency of shadows. Each loop is a set of instructions that repeats itself, slightly differently each time. Some iterations are faster than others. I spend hours rewriting code and the scene looks almost exactly the same as before, but the movement is smoother, or I can generate more houses at once without affecting the framerate.

The work so far, although it does not contain language, is very textual: I’ve made a video of little house-shaped points of light washing up on a shore, and the lights read almost as letters, the house shapes suggesting something different when singular or clustered. Similarly, the projection of falling houses is composed out of code, a kind of language. Making the art is mostly an act of writing.

So the computer and I communicate, often misunderstanding each other. I accidentally instruct it to draw the 2D background in the same three-dimensional space as the houses, and the scene collapses like a theatrical backdrop, houses tumbling into an empty grey aether. Or I forget to erase between frames and each house is drawn again and again as it rotates, spinning into itself like a ball of yarn.

A House By The Water (glitch)

On the weekends I get my eyes away from the machine. It’s been a soft summer, the city muzzled by clouds, more fog than I remember from last year. Frost warnings in July. I have been photographing moss, and I want to know more about moss, perhaps even grow some in the studio. A couple of friends have a moss garden, and invite me to visit. They’ve taken a worn-out corner of the backyard and reupholstered it in different mosses collected around St. John’s. The garden is a dappled tapestry of colour and texture, with dozens of different varieties: stubbled pool-table baize, spiky tufts tinged in orange, sturdy toothbrush-like bristles. A few rusty patches. The mosses they’ve found in the city seem to thrive, while others, collected from rocks higher up on the Southside Hills, don’t seem to like living downtown.

After the garden, we go moss collecting. In the part of the park furthest from the city, landscaped paths narrow into threadbare trails between trees. The ground is soft and damp, and the grass gives way to shrubs and bog. On either side of the trail, rocks and roots are lush with moss. We find a good-sized patch of the species that seems to do best in the backyard, a riot of tiny leaves in enthusiastic chartreuse. It’s like tearing up carpet. You just kind of lift the edge and slide your hand under, and it all comes up in a clump. We fill a garbage bag with miniature islands.

Moss collecting

What I like about moss is that it is unnoticeable. It keeps a low profile, doesn’t draw attention to itself. Moss is a squatter, colonizing any overlooked surface. It thrives in the in-between places, the damp pockets, the shadows. It lurks behind trees. It’s given up frivolities like roots, flowers, seeds. At the same time, it has a humble hospitality. It offers a seat, a place to think. It obliges visitors but isn’t much of a conversationalist, doesn’t know what to say besides hello. It mumbles a bit, repeats itself softly, likes to mull things over. It’s a welcome mat gone feral.

We walk home through the drizzle. My mind is amorphous, making connections that don’t make any sense. I think: maybe moss is a kind of software. A series of instructions on how to generate more moss. A fuzzy green code, writing itself into the world. Maybe I’m just an interface between the moss and the screen. I breathe and walk in loops: one, two, three, four. My body follows unknowable instructions, cleans and repairs itself. I’m not sure how, but I think I’ve learned something about how to calculate shadows. On Monday, back in the studio, I will have so much to tell the computer.

A drawing the moss made

A drawing the moss made

Improbable geographies

Strange neighbours

Improbable geographies

Still building houses out of numbers and loops. Have stumbled across some strange neighbours and improbable geographies along the way.

What does a camera dream of when it sleeps?




Fog and forgetting

Thinking about fog. Starting with my code that fades out the foreground based on the depth data, I modified the script so that there’s some randomness to the transparency. I want the edges of the object to shift in and out, as if in a fogbank. But the effect needs work, and I didn’t get any good images today.

I spend a lot of time remembering. I scribble lists of what to try next, I keep track of my hours, I write blog posts about what I’m working on. My code is strewn with comments and reminders. I save drafts and sketches, I backup my work. The computer is a machine for remembering.

It’s easy to forget how useful forgetting can be. If I’m stuck on something, especially when writing code, most of the time I just need to get away from it for a while. In the movie True Stories, David Byrne’s character says something that’s stuck with me for years:

I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.

Forgetting, not only as a creative strategy, but as a pleasure. A way to recapture the joy of experiencing something for the first time. This came up again in a book I just finished, Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire:

Memory is the enemy of wonder, which abides nowhere else but in the present. This is why, unless you are a child, wonder depends on forgetting – on a process, that is, of subtraction.


When I want to wonder, I read anything by Italo Calvino. His final, unfinished book, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, is a series of lectures about various qualities he valued in literature. He starts with “lightness”:

My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. […] Above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language. […] Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world – qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.

To erase the opacity of the world, what an admirable idea! I want my little fogbank script to attempt this. By erasing information from the video stream, by subtracting opacity, I can introduce a kind of lightness. An opportunity to see something as if for the first time.

Feet are good tools for forgetting. When I need a new perspective, I walk up Signal Hill, often along the North Head trail. I was up there once last summer, soon after I first moved here, and there was an incredibly dense fogbank hovering just off the edge of the cliff. I sat down and watched it for a bit. A kind of brilliant backlit haze, and peering into it felt almost as if my eyes were closed, but white instead of dark. After a while, I realized I could see something shifting around in the haze. It took me a minute to figure out what I was looking at, and I’m still not entirely sure if it was my contact lenses, or the inside of my eyes. But my vision was full of subtle little squiggles and inconsistencies, and if I moved my head they would swish from side to side. Entoptic phenomena.

The idea of seeing things with new eyes is present right in the title of Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting The Name of The Thing One Sees. Near the end of the book Robert Irwin rants a bit about getting away from screens, something else I should try not to forget:

The point is to get people to peel those visors off their faces, to remove the goggles, to abandon the screens. Those screens whose very purpose is to screen the actual world out. Who cares about virtuality when there’s all this reality – this incredible, inexhaustible, insatiable, astonishing reality – present all around!

Fog camera

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.

Fog camera chair

I took the code that visualizes the Kinect depth data, and the code that knocks out the background, and combined them. So now, as things get further from the camera, they fade into transparency. I can insert any background here, and it doesn’t have to be the same colour, but for now I’ve put the blue recycling bin to work again.

There was a lazy susan in the studio, luckily enough, and it came in handy for spinning the chair (you can see the edge of it showing up in the clip above). Here’s the setup with the Kinect sensor in the background.

Fog camera setup

There’s something eerie about seeing the chair slip out of view, as if the scene is lit by candlelight. Fading the object into the background introduces a kind of fog, and the chair starts to seem larger, a building looming out of mist. Its four legs begin to read as the corners of a house. I want to use this effect to make a small landscape model feel like an island.

I’m also wondering if I could connect this to a higher-quality camera. The Kinect depth data wouldn’t sync perfectly, but it might work well enough. I’d love to try some photography or video outdoors using this effect. Funny to think about introducing virtual fog to the streets of St. John’s.

Here’s a part of a wonderful poem about embracing fog and flaws.

I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.

—Lisel Mueller, from Monet Refuses the Operation

Content ©  2017 Matthew Hollett. RSS